2012 NFL Free Agents: 10 Premium Players Who Will Command Major Dollars
As we get ready for the culmination of the 2011-12 NFL season with Super Bowl XLVI, we turn our attention to free agency.
This year's free agent class looks deep and talented at most positions, but only a few elite players will command big-time contracts.
Here are 10 stud free agents who teams will be shelling out the dough for this offseason
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Matt Flynn, QB, Green Bay Packers: Aaron Rodgers' back-up likely earned himself a shot as a starter somewhere with his performance against the Lions in Week 17, but he won't get a huge contract just yet.
Marcel Reece (RFA), FB, Oakland Raiders: Marcel Reece is probably the best fullback in this year's class and should be paid well by a fullback's standards.
Vincent Jackson, WR, San Diego Chargers: Vincent Jackson could easily command big money somewhere if he doesn't re-sign with San Diego, but I'm inclined to think his value will be reduced a bit because he is perceived as a headache.
Carl Nicks, G, New Orleans Saints: This All-Pro deserves elite-level money and will get it if he doesn't re-sign with New Orleans, but why would he want to leave a budding dynasty?
Chris Myers, C, Houston Texans: Chris Myers was one of the best centers in the NFL in 2011, but his value is somewhat limited by what scheme he plays in. He'll receive a nice extension to stay in Houston.
Scott Wells, C, Green Bay Packers: Wells is thought of as the best center in this class by some. He should get a solid contract.
Cliff Avril, DE, Detroit Lions: Cliff Avril had a breakout year in 2011, but he's still young. He might get a big offer from a pass rush-needy team, but I don't know why he wouldn't want to keep playing alongside Ndamukong Suh.
Jeremy Mincey, DE, Jacksonville Jaguars: Jeremy Mincey might be thought of as a one-year wonder, but Jacksonville badly needs him to stay and will make sure he does.
Paul Soliai, NT, Miami Dolphins: Soliai is one of the better nose tackles in the NFL and could garner interest from teams like the Houston Texans.
Stephen Tulloch, MLB, Detroit Lions: The Lions somehow landed Tulloch for just $3.25 million last year, but they'll likely have to offer him a multi-year contract this time around.
Lardarius Webb (RFA), CB, Baltimore Ravens: Webb is a young and budding star at the position and should be retained by the Ravens.
Tyvon Branch, SS, Oakland Raiders: Tyvon Branch is an above-average NFL safety who is adequate in the passing game and is a tackling machine. The Raiders can't let him get away.
Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans Saints
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Drew Brees is the top quarterback in free agency by a mile. Brees shattered Dan Marino's NFL record for passing yards in a single season, rolling up 5,476 of them on a 71.2 percent completion rate, along with 46 touchdowns to just 14 interceptions, good for a 110.6 quarterback rating.
Brees' career exploded with the New Orleans Saints. The 6'0", 209-pound Purdue product is the face of the franchise and will go down as a legend in the city of New Orleans.
There is almost as much chance of the Saints letting Brees go as there is the Patriots getting rid of Tom Brady. He will sign a monstrous contract this offseason and continue to lead New Orleans deep into the playoffs.
Ray Rice, RB, Baltimore Ravens
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Ray Rice has blossomed into one of the NFL's elite running backs over the past three seasons. He had the best season of his short career in 2011 with 2,068 yards from scrimmage and 15 touchdowns.
Rice has now rushed for 4,377 yards and 24 touchdowns, averaging 4.6 yards per carry. He has also excelled at catching passes out of the backfield, totaling 2,235 yards and five more touchdowns.
Rice was Baltimore's single-most important offensive weapon this season and provides consistent relief for quarterback Joe Flacco in pressure situations. The Ravens have enough trouble moving the ball as it is, so they will offer Rice a huge contract to retain his services.
Arian Foster (RFA), RB, Houston Texans
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Foster followed that performance by rolling up 1,224 yards and 10 touchdowns despite missing three games. On top of that, he eclipsed 600 yards and caught two touchdowns through the air in both seasons.
The 6'1", 229-pound Foster has a devastating blend of speed, agility and power and has established himself as one of the elite backs in the NFL, along with guys like Adrian Peterson and Ray Rice.
Houston has a great back-up in Ben Tate who could be starting for some ball clubs, but Foster is simply on another level and is Houston's No. 1 priority this offseason. He'll be signed long-term and receive a hefty pay raise.
Matt Forte, RB, Chicago Bears
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The third running back on our list, Matt Forte completes the top end of a very deep and talented class of free agent running backs that also includes Marshawn Lynch, Michael Bush and Peyton Hillis.
Forte wanted a new contract with the Bears last offseason, but instead of pouting about it, he just went to work and began earning a big new contract. Despite getting injured with four games left in the season, Forte finished with 997 yards and three touchdowns on the ground while catching 52 balls for 490 more yards.
Had he been able to finish the season, his numbers most definitely would have rivaled Rice's and Foster's.
Along with Jay Cutler, Matt Forte is one of the two most important pieces to Chicago's offense, and the Bears have to satisfy Forte's demands this time if they want to stay competitive offensively.
Mike Wallace (RFA), WR, Pittsburgh Steelers
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Third-year receiver Mike Wallace showed considerable promise as a rookie for the Pittsburgh Steelers and exploded onto the scene as a potent deep threat in 2010. He followed that up with another impressive season this past season.
Though his speed makes him one of the scariest downfield threats in the NFL, he seemed to become a more complete receiver in 2011 and deserves to be put in the NFL's top echelon of receivers.
Wallace now has 171 receptions for 3,206 yards and 24 touchdowns in his career, which averages out to be an astonishing 18.7 yards per catch. He scores a touchdown every seven catches and has even carried the ball 15 times for 144 yards.
The Steelers will make him one of the highest-paid receivers in the league, and if they don't, someone else will.
Dwayne Bowe, WR, Kansas City Chiefs
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Dwayne Bowe has produced three 1,000-yard seasons in five years with the Kansas City Chiefs, proving himself to be one of the most consistent top receivers in the game despite working with sub-par quarterback play most of his career.
Bowe doesn't usually score a lot of touchdowns (with the exception of the 2010 season), but he has 356 catches for 4,927 yards in 75 career games, which averages out to be a solid five catches for 66 yards per game.
It's tough to see the Chiefs letting their top wideout leave, but if he is not re-signed, he will have a lot of suitors and will ultimately receive a big contract.
Wes Welker, WR, New England Patriots
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Wes Welker's small stature (5'9", 185 pounds) has limited him to the slot position for his whole NFL career, but to say he has excelled at the position while in New England is an understatement.
Welker is a pass-catching machine who has caught more than 110 passes in four out of five seasons with the Patriots. He was especially dominant this year with 122 receptions for a whopping 1,569 yards and nine touchdowns, the best statistical season of his career.
The Texas Tech product has found a home in New England's system, and though there's almost no way he will consider playing anywhere else, the Patriots will reward him with a big payday.
Mario Williams, DE/OLB, Houston Texans
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Mario Williams, one of the NFL's premiere pass-rushers, was lost for the season to an injury just five games into 2011, but not before he had already recorded five sacks.
Williams now has 53 sacks in 82 career games, a number that could go up dramatically in the right system. The 6'6", 283-pounder has the versatility to play either 4-3 defensive end or 3-4 outside linebacker, but playing in a 3-4 system would probably inflate is sack numbers significantly.
The Houston Texans would love to hang on to this luxury player, but they played well despite his absence this past season, and the cold, hard truth is that they may not be able to afford keeping him.
Regardless of where Williams ends up, he is an elite prospect and will earn one of the largest contracts of the offseason.
Calais Campbell, DE/DT, Arizona Cardinals
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Calais Campbell, a 6'8", 300-pound giant, wreaked havoc from the defensive end spot this year, recording 72 tackles, eight sacks, two forced fumbles and 10 pass deflections for a defense that improved dramatically over the course of the season.
The fourth-year player has proven to be a force along the defensive line, and his size and athleticism make him versatile.
A former Miami Hurricane, he is a part of a long line of stud NFL prospects to come out of the school and should be another recipient of a huge contract, whether that's with the Cardinals or not.
Brandon Carr, CB, Kansas City Chiefs
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I'm sort of on the fence about Brandon Carr getting paid like a top cornerback next season, but based on his performance in Kansas City, I wouldn't be surprised if a cornerback-needy team such as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (who will have a ton of money to spend, I might add) takes a risk and offers him No. 1 corner money.
Carr has excelled across from Brandon Flowers, allowing fewer than 50 percent of the passes thrown his way to be completed on the season, and he added 45 tackles and four picks.
The Chiefs may or may not retain him; to do so, they would have to fork over a substantial sum. If not, Carr will leave to begin his career as a No. 1 cornerback.